Don’t forget Syria!

Death toll approaching 40,000 (plus those wounded, arrested, psychologically injured… and approximately 2.5 million refugees (both internally and abroad)!)…
Struggle approaching its 20th month…
Winter approaching in destroyed towns and refugee camps throughout the region…
Update on the new opposition here


The situation thus remains extremely dire and worrying from all points of view. Heavy fighting continues and shows no sign of abating. Neither side seems capable of putting an end to the conflict. And civilians are the ones who mainly bear the brunt: the civil war is resulting in a notable disintegration of a Syrian society which was once hailed as a model for the rest of Arab countries, principally characterized by its inclusiveness and an exemplary secular core.

Citing an alarming deterioration of the security situation on the ground (though I find it hard to believe things can get even worse), the UN OCHA has announced the withdrawal of all its remaining non-essential staff and the suspension of its missions within the country, until further notice. The UN, together with the ICRC and Red Crescent, are the only actors inside the country actually putting in place relief efforts throughout the embattled territory. I cannot help but wonder how this humanitarian aid innocent internally displaced Syrians are in desperate need of is going to be provided from now on.

Moreover, intelligence reports in various countries point out a frightening fact: in recent days, Syrian troops have allegedly been moving components to build and use chemical weapons (particularly to manufacture sarin gas). US response has been blunt and swift: President Obama (who had already told that any evidence that Mr Assad was moving the weapons in a threatening way or making use of them is considered a “red line” for them, and could prompt direct American intervention) delivered a laudable speech in which he directly warned Assad’s regime, affirming that “the world is watching” and stressing there will be consequences, thus suggesting the eventuality of some kind of military intervention, according to certain pundits. In effect, Jordanian Foreign Minister said that “the use of chemical weapons would change everything; the Regime knows that the international community will not accept the use of these weapons, either against the people or against neighboring countries, moreover if these weapons fall into the wrong hands”. The Syrian regime was also quick to respond: they won’t use that type of weapons, “if they had them”, against their own people under any circumstance. Even admitting they are telling the truth: they’ve had no qualms about resorting to other harmful arms: it has been recently published that Syria is the only country in the world that has actively used anti-personal landlines in 2012 (besides cluster bombs targeting children!).

NATO has also issued a crystal-clear warning concerning the use of chemical weapons, and has finally authorised the deployment of Patriot air defense missiles on Turkish borders, a development that should limit Syrian bombing of the northern border towns, where the rebels hold large swathes of territory. Maybe, and despite of the organization’s repeated denials stressing the missiles are strictly defensive and that the missile system will not be “for use beyond the Turkish border”, this could represent a first step towards the establishment of a no-fly zone? Vladimir Putin (surely sharing the latter thought), during a tense visit to neighbouring Turkey, showed its opposition to the decision: “it does not resolve the situation, but instead exacerbates it; they say that if a gun is hanging on your wall at the beginning of a game, then at the end it will surely be used to shoot”. 

As a result of recent notable rebel steady gains, Damascus has witnessed an increase in the number of checkpoints, an increased scrutiny (unprecedentedly targeting women and children), as well as an increase in the number of arbitrary arrests. More bomb attacks have been taking place, the regime being the main to be pointed out in this sense, as it is thus able to accuse the perennial “terrorists”, that according to them are the only culprits of this conflict. Observers have also noted a surge of both military effectives and instruments, mainly sent to the outskirts of the city and the airport (international flights were cancelled this week-end). Would that mean the regime feels besieged and may collapse at any time? The Internet blackout everyone has been talking about (a traditional move jeopardized and often desperate governments make when they want to stop the opposition from communicating and coordinating, thus preventing them from gaining further ground), as well as the more and more frequent attacks on foreign media seem to confirm that theory. Such an important figure as LAS Secretary General has dared sharing that view: “now they [the rebels] are fighting in Damascus; I think there will be something soon”, adding thar “facts on the ground indicate very clearly now that the Syrian opposition is gaining, politically and militarily”. 

In my opinion, the biggest problem is that neither side is nowadays ready to accept a negotiated deal: both the rebels on the ground and the regime are focused on winning a war, not on finding a way out of it. Even if an agreement was to be reached, both the government and the opposition would need (and they should show it to the world) to be able to control all their factions, and the opposition seems currently unable to deliver in that sense (moreover if we take into account extremist jihadists are fighting in the country), while the regime has managed to keep different groups aligned in spite of defections and assassinations of several of its figures. Indeed, the opposition, both inside and outside Syria, is heading towards what some call “devolution towards warlordism”. And if you are familiar with Middle Eastern recent history, that should remind you of one particular case: Lebanon. That’s it: if the opposition remains unable to establish a trustworthy consensual unifying unique chain of command, the civil war in Syria could rapidly degenerate into a militia war (there are more than 2,000 militias in the country) where armed groups will not be really able to defeat each other, a war that would last years and would mean more and more bloodshed, until all parties are exhausted and the remaining authorities are dragged to the negotiating table by external powers eager to reach a power-sharing agreement.

The Syrian opposition is in dire need of trust and decisive support from outside. This support, even if it’s nowadays deemed dangerous by many (chiefly when it comes to funelling arms and money to the rebels) would benefit both the country itself, in order to avert a Lebanon (or even Somalia)-type catastrophe and lean towards an Iraq-case scenario (not much better, but it’s going to be a mess anyway, so let’s opt for the lesser of two evils) and the international community (a huge amount of actors are actually involved in this situation), as it would “give birth” to a country where other countries can reengage instead of a fragmented state. Moreover, external actors should really reflect on something: it is clear at this point that Assad won’t leave Syria, for that would mean leaving behind vulnerable groups, notably Allawites and other associates, that will inevitably be hardly punished. If the opposition continues to demand the absolute toppling of his regime, that will only guarantee, at this stage, the continuation of the war. Therefore, and I’m sorry to say that, negotiations will ultimately require the participation of certain remnants of the regime. That’s what Brahimi, for all its faults and all the criticism he has been a target of, is trying hard to. Maybe the time has come to stop threatening and start pondering other options…

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